Input on your Touch Screen: Is it Under your Thumbs, or at your Fingertips?
As I’ve said before on my blog and in some of my books, growing up when I did has given me an appreciation of how much change today’s assistive technology had delivered. I well remember having to memorise how many times you had to scroll through a menu on an inaccessible cell phone just to assign a ring tone to a contact, or put it in and out of silent mode.
In 2002, I produced a piece for ACB Radio’s Main Menu in which I described how you could cable a Nokia phone to PC Suite, and with a bit of JAWS cursor work, send and receive text messages. I remember texting friends and family and thinking how cool it was that I could participate in the texting craze, even to that limited degree.
In 2003, a whole new world opened up when I obtained my first fully accessible cell phone, a Nokia 6600 running Talks. To be able to change all the settings, scroll through the menus, and not only send texts, but email right from my phone was just incredible.
It didn’t take long before I was texting away at a good speed, particularly as access to the T9 prediction algorithm became better with subsequent releases of Talks. But from the very beginning, despite reading in the user manual for the phone that you should use your thumbs to enter text on the numeric keypad, I found it cumbersome. I persisted, because I often find that new skills take time, but the brain is pretty flexible and if you persist with something long enough, you’ll get there. But in this case, I did not get there. I found myself able to text significantly faster if I use my first finger.
Similarly, when I owned phones with a tiny qwerty keyboard, often called a “thumb board”, I would also use my first finger. The thumb boards were too small to do touch typing, but again, I just found typing with my thumbs really unwieldy.
Now I use an iPhone, and one of the options I have for input is its virtual qwerty keyboard. Despite a bit of practice, I still find I’m more accurate and fast when I use my first fingers to type on it.
I’ve talked to a few blind people, just in passing when it comes up, about whether I’m alone on this, and while it isn’t universal by any means, I’m far from the only blind person who enters text on small keyboards this way. My sighted friends all seem to use their thumbs. That got me wondering whether being a Braille reader has something to do with this. I’ve been blind since birth, and a Braille reader since the age of 5. Science would suggest that the visual cortex of totally blind Braille readers goes through some rewiring. I read and write Braille a lot. Not a day goes by when I haven’t read some substantial amount of material on my Focus 40 Blue or Focus 14 Blue Braille displays. Like most Braille readers, my thumb isn’t used as part of the Braille reading process, other than to advance the display.
I know some blind people who use their thumbs to enter text. Some are Braille readers and some are not. But I wonder if there is a pattern here that suggests most proficient Braille readers will tend to do better entering data on a touch screen with their primary Braille reading fingers.
I thought I’d throw this one open for a bit of discussion, which I hope will be interesting, even if it’s not conclusive.
If you’re blind, do you text with your thumbs? Irrespective of whether you do or not, are you a Braille reader, and do you think that has an impact on why you do, or why you don’t?
I’d also be interested in hearing from anyone sighted who finds using their thumbs for data entry on a small screen to be cumbersome.
Let us know your experiences in the comments.